Restaurants specializing in Filipino food have gained popularity and recognition in international urban centers known for their gastronomy. Even food carts hawking authentic versions and adaptations of adobo are becoming a go-to for hungry crowds.

As for food retail products, the diaspora of Filipino workers has made it lucrative for local brands to find their way into groceries patronized by OFWs, where one can find popular brands of patis, bagoong, instant pancit canton, and a smattering of chips and cookies. It won’t take long, hopefully, for more products to penetrate the gleaming supermarket shelves, this time side by side with other global brands.

Be they artisanal, mass-made, or simply packaged well, Filipino brands are becoming a hot topic abroad.

Popped culture

Tony Elepaño was envisioning world domination as early as two years after establishing his Chef Tony’s Popcorn brand. His first forays proved unsuccessful. “I joined trade shows and expos and I noticed that what we were presenting to the international community were the mango juice, dried mangoes, and otap. I love our heritage food, but that is all that the country was being known for. We never innovated. People were surprised when they asked me what my product was and I answered popcorn,” he smiles.

Tony Elepaño is the man behind Filipino popcorn brand Chef Tony's
Chef Tony’s popcorn has successfully penetrated the Asian market including Singapore and Indonesia

When he went to United Arab Emirates (UAE), he found some interested buyers, but they wanted to put him in the Filipino section of the groceries. “Katabi ko na naman sila mango juice,” he grins. He knew even then that marketing to overseas Filipino workers instead of the general public would not be a good fit for the brand. “How can you compete with global brands if they will only be selling you to your kababayans?” he asked.

In the end, he was able to find customers quite easily. The brand experience spoke for itself. “We noticed a huge volume of sales coming from Clark in Pampanga. We were selling three, four, five cases a day,” he narrates. They did a little digging and found out that Tiger Air passengers bound for Singapore would buy the products just before getting on the plane. “They were bringing it back with them—Filipino professionals and Singaporeans. At that time, four years ago, there was a popcorn brand there that was super sikat. We were the alternative for those who found that brand too sweet.”

After Singapore came Indonesia, where Indonesians shopping at places like the Marina Bay Sands stumbled upon the brand. Inquiries started coming in and soon Elepaño found a suitable distributor. “It took several tries. The first ones we tried out did not work because the distributors themselves were not our target market. This is why when someone approaches me now, to bring the business outside, I take time to know them better.” He says the Indonesian market works so well because the people representing the brand are as passionate about the popcorn as he is. 

“We do a little bit of cross-selling, but the trend now is really localization and heritage flavors. At the end of the day, I am not after volume, but space in the mind and heart. My goal is for someone to say, ‘This is my flavor, my snack. I will default to this,” says Tony Elepaño.

The market there is also reactive, he shares. “One time, they posted on Instagram that we were down to the last 10 pieces of Belgian Butter at our bazaar stall, and within 15 minutes people were flocking to the stand. Here in the Philippines, it takes us 24 hours to react.”

With a promising opportunity to do more, Elepaño is now considering a new concept for Indonesia where the popcorn will be popped on-site. His flavors, which number at 16 locally, grew to about 31 with localized flavors for outside markets. He is thinking of putting out date and pistachio flavors in the Middle East.

“We do a little bit of cross-selling, but the trend now is really localization and heritage flavors. At the end of the day, I am not after volume, but space in the mind and heart. My goal is for someone to say, ‘This is my flavor, my snack. I will default to this.

At the moment, he reports that UAE is about to go online again, joining Indonesia, Singapore, and Hong Kong as overseas markets. “It’s funny how some people still don’t know Chef Tony. Inuuwi nilang pasalubong,” he laughs.

Cool beans

Cocoa Monster was borne out of demand from a retail market. The parent company, TP Food Processing Corporation, produces raw materials from cacao beans sourced in Davao to be distributed to hotels and restaurants here and abroad.

“We were a consolidator for a long time, primarily involved with institutional buyers,” explains Michael Edward Lim, one of the company vice presidents. “We knew our chocolate was good. People have been asking us for the longest time where they can buy our products, so we started out by experimenting with our tablea. People liked it so we started looking for other products.”

Cocoa Monster uses chocolate sourced from cacao beans in Davao
Cocoa Monster’s chocolate-covered dried mangoes is now found in Guam

The chocolate-covered mango craze was also starting at the time, so they decided to give it a try. “We kind of piggybacked on the industry, but I’d like to think that we made it better,” adds Tim Lim, Michael’s brother and fellow company vice president.

One of the ways they improved on the product and set it apart from competitors was to present it in better packaging. While others were offering their products stuck together in plastic pouches, their chocolate-covered mangoes come individually wrapped in foil, cradled inside pristine white boxes.

Filipino entrepreneurs Michael and Tim Lim
Michael and Tim Lim

This made all the difference to foreign buyers, as Koreans and Japanese appreciated the aesthetics along with the quality of their products. It was not long before they started receiving offers. Locally, they are present in high-end supermarkets such as Rustan’s and SM.

“In the export market, China came first. But there’s a lot of red tape in their government. Our seller there wants to put the product online, in their version of Amazon. In Guam, we are found in tourist centers. They initially tried someone else’s brand but our retailer called us because we had better packaging, which in turn, has a better response with the Japanese tourists.”

He adds that the Made in the Philippines tag has a big potential in the foreign market because many of the local products are already of export quality. “The problem is that a lot of businesses are stunted because we need more help from the government.”

The cold standard

When Paco Magsaysay of Carmen’s Best Ice Cream got into the business in 2011, it was only as a way to help his father’s dairy farm. “The farm had to throw away milk, as we could not sell it as quickly as we had to milk the cow twice a day. We came up with a product to solve a problem,” he explains.

That is why when he hears people say they have the best ice cream in the Philippines, he just smiles. “We did not get into the ice cream business to bump heads with the big ice cream companies. We’re here to serve a niche. We are making ice cream the way we feel ice cream should taste.”

Paco Magsaysay of Filipino brand Carmen's Best Ice Cream
Paco Magsaysay

The first four flavors they started out with in 2011 were salted caramel, butter pecan, Brazilian coffee, and malted milk. “Would you believe we were just thinking of selling our ice cream in our village?” he smiles. Since the take-up of the residents was not fast enough, as cows have to be milked twice a day, they had to look for other places to sell the ice cream. They now have 38 flavors.

His success lies in their quality and ability to innovate. This has led to a good local following and a possibility of going international. “If we make ice cream equal to or even slightly lower quality from the imported flavors, how on earth do you think I can compete with them in other Asian countries? I would totally be in a losing battle with these giants with their strong brand, their deep pockets, their leverage with the retailers, and the years of doing business in the markets we plan to enter.”

“Would you believe we were just thinking of selling our ice cream in our village?” Paco Magsaysay smiles. Since the take-up of the residents was not fast enough, as cows have to be milked twice a day, they had to look for other places to sell the ice cream. They now have 38 flavors.

Without a quality product, he would not have even thought of venturing abroad, he confides. “But the fact is, we have a better quality product. And, we will go head to head with these guys. Like our strategy in the Philippines, we are not looking to be a dominant ice cream player. We plan to cater to a niche in the different markets we are entering.”

According to Magsaysay, while they are confident about the product, there are many challenges they face. The ice cream is made in the Philippines, and they have to comply with the different tests, certificates, and permits needed for each country. “We also have to have our ingredient list translated to the local language of the country we are going to enter. In terms of temperature, our ice cream has to be in -25 degrees cold chain.” 

They are now being “discovered” by foreigners, as the ice cream is being served to business class passengers of Philippine Airlines. “We also had a strong customer base and they just kept on telling people about our ice cream. I also try to get as many people to try our ice cream,” he offers.

“So far we received very positive feedback on the initial product samples we sent to some of our prospective importers with regard to taste, appearance, and overall quality.”

The warm welcome abroad does not only extend to our traditional cuisine and ambassadorial chefs. With quality brands like Chef Tony’s, Cocoa Monster, and Carmen’s Best, food retail has entered the international scene and is receiving good feedback. Indeed, there are opportunities for many other local players.

International success may not be easy, but it sure can be rewarding and fulfilling. Just don’t lose sight of the end goal, suggests Elepaño. “Be ambitious, have your vision, but don’t stray too far from your formula. Chef Tony succeeded abroad by sticking to what made it work in the Philippines. Retain that spirit on how your business was built.”

Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 13 No. 3